Designerly Thinking: The Process and Impact of Design and Design Thinking

By Sasha Pinto Jayawardena.
March 2, 2022.

From identifying a problem to providing a creative solution, we explore the fundamental concept of designerly thinking and the role it plays in Providing effective and creative solutions.

In a world where our lifestyles are determined largely by consumeristic culture; by what we watch, wear, and use, the idea of what design truly is and the role played by designers in shaping our lived experiences is lost between the ambiguous and often out-of-context usage of the obnoxiously grey term “design.” While the 60s saw so few of us designers, given that the profession was niche and only few opportunities existed, the value of a designer was arguably higher then than it is now.

Concurrently, we find that design as a discipline has evolved and expanded so much that the word design is often flippantly and nonchalantly used in association with anything visual – for instance, when calling a terrible logo type, smacked on an equally atrocious dishwashing label you’d find in your hometown convenience store, a design. On the surface, one can say that it is in fact, something of a design, but on a more technical and skill-specific note, what if we told you that isn’t quite the case? That there is more to design, design thinking, and the role of the designer in society today, than producing a badly composed logo type for a dishwashing bottle? 

What is Design?

The sentiments towards the devaluing of the term “design” are shared by renown Industrial Designer and retired academic, Dieter Rams. In order to combat this predicament, Rams suggests taking the profession more seriously by understanding that design “is not simply an adjective to place in front of a product’s name to somehow artificially enhance its value.”  

If we were to therefore discuss the subject of design from a fresh perspective, and ask ourselves the question, “what is design?” we are led to a kaleidoscope of possible answers. Is it appropriation? Disruption? Perhaps reflection, or even problem-solving? The answer to this question is that it is not characterized by one thing in particular, nor does it have a fixed answer; but encompasses various shades and hues that collectively contribute to forming an understanding of what design is; in a sense, a coat of many colours. 

This kaleidoscopic positioning of design allows it to occupy a unique space in the Creative Industries. Four spheres of professional practice stand out as pillars between which design is located. While certainly not being limited to these, design predominantly draws from the spheres of art, anthropology, and ethics; psychology, sociology and science; business and economics; and manufacturing, engineering & computing.  We can understand the conversation between design and these transdisciplinary fields better by observing the manner in which design has dissolved in to multiple sub-branches. Unlike in the 60s, the twenty-first century is saturated with the hues of service designers, textile designers, game designers, jewelry designers, product designers, vehicle designers, spatial designers, experiential designers, and more. Needless to say, times have changed, which reiterates the observation that design is transdisciplinary and collaborative in nature. 

Design Through the Ages

To better frame design and provide it some context, let’s take a look at where it came from. The profession-specific roots of design are traced to the Industrial Revolution, although arguably, design is a practice with much older roots – tracing back to the Classical Era as can be seen by the stunning art and architecture of the Greeks. Design as we know it today however, transformed rapidly with the Industrial Revolution which set off a chain of events beginning with the replacement of manpower by mechanization. 

To cut a long-winded story short, when steam engines were invented, railroads were built. These railroads connected remote towns and villages dispersed across vast tracts of land. What was once an isolated spread of towns, became a network. People began to travel. Towns began to expand, hence the need for more houses. The distance one could travel expanded, and horse-drawn carriages were replaced by automobiles, which brought about the construction of roads and bridges. These rapid milestone developments subsequently resulted in the need for specialized design skills; urban planners and designers, vehicle designers, and much more. In much the same context, the more we progress and evolve, the more our technology and needs change, the more likely it is for the role of design and designers to evolve with it; becoming more and more niche-specific in providing specialized skills to meet growing market needs and trends.

Design for Cultural Change

Along with the constant evolution of design fields and niches, is the changing role and status of the designer in society. This brings about the topic of the designer that designs for cultural change. In a nutshell, designing for cultural change refers to the ability of designers to participate in local and global publics as a citizen designer; designing to respond to concerns of social, technological, economic, environmental, cultural, and political concern that impacts/affects communities. 

This might be in the way Muhammad Andri Afandi of Singapore, recognized the growing problem of food wastage, where both children and adults prefer to disengage from certain food types due to either its shape, colour, scent or stereotype/myth associated with it. Like how, for instance, Children categorically despise broccoli because it’s green and strange-looking, or how the smell of certain types of vegetables can be so off-putting, children refuse to eat it. In response to this problem, Afandi designed to redefine form, thereby creating new perceptions and experiences towards food items that traditionally go to waste.

What becomes evident is how the designer’s role in society has evolved, allowing the designer to function as a citizen designer, and not as an isolated event detached from society. It can be said that this type of designer designs for two prominent causes; social design for sustainable change and design for social commentary. 

Design as a Way of Thinking

Design can be better understood as a pragmatic methodology, and in this sense has an element to it that is just as self-correcting and reflectional as it is conceptual and philosophical. To put it simply, design as a way of thinking, is a process and strategy. This can be best explained by drawing from Larry Hickman’s definition of the pragmatic methodology; inquiry, seeking meaning and discovering truth. It is a strategy, introspective and retrospective, philosophical at times, and is a path chosen as a means of responding to a problem; the end goal being an effective and functional solution. According to Ranulph Glanville, even if “the design problem is obscure and ambiguous… through a design process, a solution emerges to clarify the problem.” Coincidentally, many scholars such as Herbert Simon, Donald Schon, Richard Buchanan, Bryan Lawson & Nigel cross, and Klaus Krippindorf discuss the essence of designerly thinking. 

For instance, Herbert Simon shares the view that design encompasses all conscious activities, focuses on creation and transforms existing realities into preferred conditions. Schon concurrently elaborates upon design as a practice-based relationship between creation and reflection-upon-the-creation making design a reflection-in-action type of methodology. Buchanan provides fresh insight into the subject by positioning design thinking as a matter of dealing with wicked problems, positioned to intervene and reconsider the following problems and solutions: 

  1. Symbolic/visual communications
  2. Material objects
  3. Activities/organizational services
  4. Complex systems/environments

Coincidentally, Lawson and Cross explain that design thinking is something that designers do during the activity of designing, further elaborating that design thinking turns creative design processes into forms of knowledge people can use. In conjunction with this line of thinking, Krippindorf highlights that design is centered on meaning as a medium for communication and is articulated by designers as part of the community.

As can be seen from this, the discourse on design thinking is wide and is not, by any estimate, a new conversation. As a result, multiple theories and frameworks of what design thinking is, how it can be understood as a methodology and its impact and effect have been researched and published. 

An analysis of the discourse regarding how design and designerly thinking can be understood, we can discern that the methodology consists of five steps; empathy, define, ideate, prototype, and test. Let’s break these points down.

  1. Empathy – the ability to understand and share feelings of others begins when you learn about who you are designing for.
  2. Define – The design process relies on context as it builds perspective, helps to identify needs, and clarifies the point of view. Therefore, defining a problem/challenge, target market, and scope of a design problem provides the blueprints upon which a designer can begin creating compelling narratives.
  3. Ideate – During this stage, the quip “no idea is a bad idea” is quite applicable because through the design thinking process, even bad ideas can become good ones. This stage starts with brainstorming – churning your mind to pull out ideas from every nook and cranny; which subsequently provides fodder for designers to begin conceptualizing and developing creative solutions on what they have learnt of a client’s needs and wants. 
  4. Prototype – prototyping helps convert ideas into tangible outcomes by building a form of tangible, physical representation. 
  5. Test – Examines the feasibility of ideas, generates feedback, analyses and evaluates, and involves the audience.

Breaking Down the Creative Strategy

As for the process, much like its definition, there is no set approach or methodology. However, the Design Council, UK and Darden School of Business, UVA discuss two overall strategies that one could use to understand the pragmatism of design thinking as a methodology. The UK’s Design Council breaks down the thinking process into four clear steps; Discover, Define, Develop, Deliver.  As can be seen by the image below, the methodology is not linear and involves both inductive and deductive approaches that lead to a final, curated solution. 

The process starts with identifying a problem. Research is conducted to understand its lengths and breaths – leading to the ability for a designer to define the scope of the project; its deliverables and a potential route. The process funnels inward at this point, leading towards the clear definition of the problem and potential solutions as a response to it. Then on, the methodology expands once more as a designer enters into a development stage, where all the testing and prototyping takes place; the stage where the perfectionist in the designer really comes out. And upon nearing the delivery of a solution, the designer begins to really craft and curate the final solution, shaving off and polishing all the rough edges, making sure that the solution meets all the needs identified at the start, is functional, and makes the client happy. 

Looking at these methodologies and all that we have shared so far on designerly thinking, it can no longer be said that a designer, or that the process of design is easy and requires little thought and effort. On the contrary, designers are some of the most skill-specific and conscious professional practitioners within the Creative Industries. They think through target markets, study and analyze their behavior, and work on solutions to help visually communicate messages or respond to real-life challenges in a creative, functional, effective, and engaging manner. At least, this is what a good designer would do. 

Who is a Designer?

So, who and what is a designer? Well, in a nutshell, the best way to describe a designer is as a coat of many colours, never one thing, but the sum of many different elements, characteristics, and components. 

On a more experiential note, the definition of a most dear mentor works well as a response to this question. In this context, a designer is predominantly a problem solver that encompasses many different characteristics in the process of problem solving. These characteristics can be contextualized by a designer’s primary job: 

Lessons from Design

Having discussed what and who a designer and design thinking is, what can we learn from design as a way of thinking? Michael M. Meyer and Don Norman share some insight into the symbiotic relationship between the role of the citizen designer and the changing landscapes of the world, observing that “… designers are starting to play a larger and larger role in not only designing but managing beyond the design studio...” In this sense, it can be said that contemporary design and designers are more concerned with participatory design as a new paradigm of cultural change that focuses on bottom-up innovation, grassroots initiatives, slow/sustainable movements, and simple models/frameworks/activities that are effective and functional. Based on this, three prominent lessons can be learnt from design as a way of thinking.

Lesson 1: Communication
Document Procedures and Practices

  • History
  • Motives
  • Methods
  • Successes
  • Failures

Lesson 2: Iteration
Continual Improvements and Enhancements

  • Experiment
  • Discard
  • Evolve
  • Discuss

Lesson 3: Learn by doing
Translate the Practice of Design into Knowledge

  • Industry Engagement
  • Collaborations/Partnerships
  • Knowledge Sharing
  • Formulate Toolkits/Models


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